GOP doubts grow about Rubio

Congressional Republicans are re-evaluating Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP Senate candidates trade barbs in brutal Indiana primary Students gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes MORE’s presidential campaign in the wake of his dismal showing in New Hampshire and disastrous debate performance over the weekend.

The GOP establishment rallied around the freshman Florida senator last week after he outperformed polls in Iowa by finishing a strong third in that state’s caucuses.

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Now they’re questioning whether he can stand up to the pressure of facing off against the Democratic nominee — likely Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton takes swipe at 'false equivalency' in media coverage of 2016 election Former presidents, first ladies come together to honor Barbara Bush Romney: Parts of Comey book read 'too much like a novel’ MORE — in the general election.

“People who have already endorsed [Rubio] are probably concerned to see how he can come out of South Carolina. I think there’s a definite level of concern,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoFamily, friends mourn death of Barbara Bush Lawmakers propose boosting park funding with oil money Lawmakers trade barbs, torch Trump at DC soiree MORE (R-W.Va.), who has not endorsed in the race.

South Carolina will host the next Republican presidential primary, on Feb. 20.

Some lawmakers are giving a second look at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who had been largely written off ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

Bush beat expectations by finishing in a virtual tie for third place in the Granite State, just ahead of Rubio, with 11 percent of the vote.

“It obviously breathes more life into his campaign, to push him down to South Carolina,” Capito said of Bush. 

But Rubio’s stumble in New Hampshire — which came after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie effectively humiliated him on the debate stage — revived questions about his readiness.

“There’s questions not about his ability but about his lack of experience,” Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said of Rubio.

Jones had endorsed Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP senator: Democratic opposition to Pompeo 'driven 100 percent by politics' Pompeo lacks votes for positive vote on panel CIA declassifies memo on nominee's handling of interrogation tapes MORE (R-Ky.) but is weighing other candidates now that Paul has dropped out.

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard Sessions Trump to lawmakers pressing Sessions to investigate Comey and Clinton: 'Good luck with that' Five takeaways from Trump adding Giuliani Trump disputes report that he calls Sessions 'Mr. Magoo' MORE (R-Ala.), an outspoken conservative who is neutral in the race, said “it looks like” people are reassessing Rubio’s chances.

“He had big momentum out of Iowa, and it wasn’t maintained,” he said. “It’s funny how people can peak and never recover.”

Steve Schmidt, a veteran GOP strategist who ran Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRomney forced into GOP primary for Utah Senate nomination Trump considering pardon for boxing legend after call from Sylvester Stallone GOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees MORE’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign, said Rubio needs a miracle.

“A fifth place finish in New Hampshire means effectively he’s bleeding out,” Schmidt said of Rubio on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

The Florida senator finished with 10.6 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. In the run-up to the contest, polls showed him in second place, with an average of 14 percent.

“That campaign is effectively over unless he can pull off a miracle and win the Nevada caucuses,” Schmidt added. “He doesn’t have a path in South Carolina.”

McCain, who won his party’s nomination in 2008, said Rubio has only
himself to blame for the way he froze when Christie attacked him as a scripted, overly cautious candidate.

“He himself said, ‘Nobody but me. I take responsibility for it.’ I agree with him,” McCain said of Rubio.

Rubio’s GOP critics are making the argument on Capitol Hill that he’s not ready to run for president, particularly given the hostile media environment.

“Democrats can run a younger person like John F. Kennedy because the media is with them,” said Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump struggles to get new IRS team in place Romney forced into GOP primary for Utah Senate nomination Romney won't commit yet to supporting Trump in 2020 MORE (R-Utah), a Bush backer. “Republicans will have a more difficult time because if somebody’s young, they’re going to get beaten up like never before by this biased media.”

Rubio on Wednesday morning blamed an unrelenting media barrage for his disappointing showing Tuesday.

“What happened is, obviously, Saturday night, the debate went the way it went, and then just the media coverage over the last 72 hours was very negative about it,” he said Wednesday morning on “Fox & Friends.”

Rubio’s allies, who have been working to round up endorsements in Congress, argued Wednesday that his debate gaffe and fifth-place showing would have only a temporary impact.

“These things are pretty short-lived. I think it’s had the impact it’s going to have. This guy’s good. I’ve seen him give lots and lots and lots of speeches,” said Sen. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischChanging the rules won't fix congressional dysfunction Senate approves .3 trillion spending bill, sending to Trump Overnight Health Care: FDA takes first step to cut nicotine levels in cigarettes | Trump's health chief backs official at center of abortion fight | Trump opioid plan will reportedly include death penalty for some drug dealers MORE (R-Idaho), who has endorsed Rubio.

Risch acknowledged, however, that Bush’s performance gave him a ticket to stay in the race.

“He over-performed, so he’ll come out of there with something,” he said.

Last week, Risch predicted Bush wouldn’t finish in New Hampshire’s top three.

Bush’s allies claimed their candidate is now perfectly set up to perform well in South Carolina, a state his father and brother won in past presidential elections and one that has an impressive track record in picking the eventual GOP nominee.

“Jeb Bush has a very good chance of being nominated because he did well,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “I think he’s going to do well in South Carolina. He has the depth of support and the organization.”

Rubio had been the target of an intense negative advertising campaign by Bush and Christie. His backers say those attacks may abate now that Christie has dropped out and Bush has incentive to focus instead on Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the second-place finisher in New Hampshire.

Kasich is now trying to claim the mantle as the leading mainstream Republican alternative to front-runners Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpClinton takes swipe at 'false equivalency' in media coverage of 2016 election Trump asked Netanyahu if he actually cares about peace: report Official: Trump to urge North Korea to dismantle nuclear program in return for sanctions relief MORE and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz's Dem challenger slams Time piece praising Trump Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election 32 male senators back Senate women's calls to change harassment rules MORE. But GOP lawmakers question whether his second-place finish in New Hampshire will translate to success in South Carolina and other states.

They noted that Kasich held more than 100 town-hall events in New Hampshire and doesn’t have much of a political operation in South Carolina or states voting later in March.

“Kasich did well, but whether that victory will have legs in South Carolina and the SEC primaries is in doubt,” Sessions said.